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One-on-one with consultant Mark Hermanson, on the Housatonic Rest of River remediation plan

Mark Hermanson is an expert in environmental chemistry who specializes in contaminated industrial sites.

Berkshire County —  With a proliferation of documents produced by General Electric Company (GE) in conjunction with a 2020 agreement, or permit, to remediate the Housatonic River — a waterway GE polluted by depositing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from its Pittsfield transformer plant — environmental group Housatonic River Initiative (HRI) sought the advice of an expert. Using Technical Assistance Grant (TAG) funds awarded by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to help those involved in Superfund site cleanup plans understand the project, representatives of the organization found what they needed in Mark Hermanson, an expert in environmental chemistry who specializes in contaminated industrial sites. His experience is legendary, not just in the U.S. but worldwide as he serves as an Associate Professor at the University Centre in Svalbard, an Arctic island belonging to Norway, and is the namesake of a consulting firm he founded. 

HRI will be hosting a public meeting on Thursday, May 16, 6 to 8 p.m., at the Lenox Community Center, introducing Hermanson to the community and offering residents an informal opportunity to ask him questions about their concerns.

On Wednesday, May 15, Hermanson was given a tour of the Upland Disposal Facility (UDF) site, a multilayered waste landfill in Lee that will serve as a repository for the less toxic PCB-laden materials dredged from the Housatonic while the more contaminated dredged materials will be sent out of the area in accordance with the remediation permit. Led by EPA Project Manager Dean Tagliaferro and others, the group was limited to Hermanson, Interim TAG Grant Administrator Charles Cianfarini, and Judy Herkimer who heads up the Housatonic Environmental Action League. 

“The TAG grant is for the stakeholders,” Herkimer said, adding that only one TAG grant is awarded at each Superfund site. “HRI is the [grant] administrator.”

The grant was awarded years ago, with about $12,000 of the funds currently unused, Cianfarini said, with HRI applying for an additional $50,000. Since 2016, not much has happened on the UDF site until various litigated matters were resolved so HRI wasn’t actively searching for a new TAG administrator after the previous one retired, he said. “Once it looked like things were going to start up again, there was actually going to be activity going on, that’s when we got the solicitation [up for the position], advertised, and got a contract,” Cianfarini said. Hermanson’s opinions can be used by HRI to guide its comments on plans and documents released by GE and the remediation project going forward, he said. 

Earlier this month, the EPA released drawings from GE illustrating the viewpoint of the UDF, with the structure intended to rise 50 to 70 feet above the current site ground surface and will accommodate up to 1.3 million cubic yards of the dredged material within a 20-acre section of the tract. 

The Berkshire Edge sat down with Hermanson about an hour after he returned from the UDF site. He’s already reviewed the UDF plan and various reports reflecting associated reaches of the river. Here’s what Hermanson had to say. 

The Berkshire Edge: Is the current remediation plan the right remediation plan for the Housatonic River Rest of River community?

Hermanson: My opinion is that it’s not because PCBs are very, very persistent. They were designed to be that way and they are that way. My own opinion about how this could be handled, how it was handled in the past, is to use some thermal system to destroy the molecule. Monsanto [as PCB manufacturer] had an incinerator in its Sauget, Illinois, site that opened in 1971 and they ran it until they closed PCB manufacturing in 1977. The purpose of this incinerator was to destroy PCBs that people had purchased with the intention of using them. Monsanto had a program in which customers could return PCBs they hadn’t used and pay Monsanto three cents a pound and arrange for shipping back to the Monsanto plant in Sauget, Illinois, where these things were incinerated and destroyed by incineration. They were successfully destroying quite a large amount of PCBs that were returned to them. That technology, from the 1970s, is known to work. There are other thermal techniques that could be used to destroy PCBs—it all requires high temperature treatment of some kind. 

The Berkshire Edge: According to the plan released by GE, the UDF is proposed to include five liners, layers of what GE has said would add protection to the project, with the lowest level proposed to sit at least 15 feet above the seasonal high level of the aquifer below it. The UDF area will be dug out and then sloped. After having toured the UDF and reviewed the project’s final plan, what are your thoughts?

Hermanson: It’s large and it’s going to be expensive and it’s not going to solve the problem that the community has. It just moves it somewhere else. 

This proposed UDF site is an old gravel pit. I have looked at it on satellite images many times and what I learned today by seeing it by not looking down at it, by looking horizontally instead, is that it’s very, very irregular topography. It’s going to take a lot of excavating, moving things around in order to construct what they referred to today as ‘the salad bowl.’ A lot of excavating to get just to that point. Of course, it’s in a gravel pit which means the reason they were taking gravel out of it was because of the nature of the materials. It’s limestone or another sedimentary kind of rock. Sedimentary rocks are known to have a lot of water flowing through them, that’s where you find really good wells, for example, and the aquifer below. I am not convinced, judging from what I saw today, how they will prevent that [liner] from leaking because when I look at diagrams of this site, none of it is impermeable. They’re putting five layers in but some of them are deliberately permeable so they can pump water from them. Even though the material they showed us today looks like it would be impermeable, they can’t guarantee that. The possibility that any of the contamination that’s in this disposal area can get into ground water–it would be a very, very bad thing. 

The Berkshire Edge: What about the effect of global warming on the UDF project, the possibility of flooding?

Hermanson: With climate change, we don’t necessarily know what’s coming. One thing that we have experienced certainly is more frequent storms, greater intensity with storms when they happen sometimes, which means the amount of rainfall could be higher in a given storm and this may not be designed to handle that. It may turn out, after 10 years of climate change, that the annual precipitation amount doesn’t change but it’s how it’s distributed that is likely to change. So, if we get a storm that is a deluge, in a situation like this, the possibility of materials being moved offsite becomes higher and that’s a chance that we shouldn’t be taking. We have an idea that this could happen and there are ways of working around that but there is no evidence that I’ve seen that this has been incorporated into the plan for this site. 

They are proposing that the bottom of ‘the salad bowl’ will be 15 feet above the highest annual groundwater level. If we have climate change, when we get intense rainfalls, that may change. That aquifer level average may change.

The Berkshire Edge: So, it could actually be, in a few years, less than 15 feet?

Hermanson: It is a possibility. In the documents that I’ve seen, there’s been no effort being made to address these kinds of scenarios. I think they need to be more forthcoming with these things that could be a part of the future.

The Berkshire Edge: With the UDF plan and its proposed transportation format, does a safety issue exist for those residing along the transportation route as well as the population of the general area?

Hermanson: It could [present a safety issue]. Transporting it, for one thing. This is waste material, really. It’s not a Monsanto PCB product in a steel drum. It’s soil, river sediment, maybe a little bit of water, and whatever else is at the bottom of that river that is going to be dredged. And, whatever it is—old refrigerators–who knows. Everything that comes up, tree stumps, it’s all going to end up in the UDF, without having any treatment before it goes in other than getting the water out of it, dewatering.

There are risks with transportation, of course, that PCBs will evolve into the atmosphere, or they may leak out into the roadway. How big that risk is is certainly not known to me but it presents a possible risk to the community. If it is a really small quantity [that leaks out] and the PCB content is not high, then the risk to other people using the highway or living around it will not be particularly high. But, if it’s not successful—if the truck carrying the load gets into a crash and the whole load ends up [on the road]—then there is a definite risk, there is a definite issue there.

The Berkshire Edge: Would the risk to safety be lower if a train transportation system was used?

Hermanson: Yes. In my opinion, trains usually operate on a track but they’re not out in traffic with other vehicles at times of day when it’s very crowded. So, in general, I would say that the chances of some kind of accident from train transport would be lower. In the transport of this stuff, there’s always the opportunity that some PCBs will escape into the atmosphere. PCBs move readily into the atmosphere and, in various documents [and] the Citizens Coordinating Council meeting where I participated on Zoom, they were talking about the measurement of PCBs in the air and what their amounts were going to be for detection [and action as stated in the proposed Quality of Life Compliance Plan]. And those numbers were sky high. My comment, in general at that meeting, was that they would never see amounts that high from PCBs evaporating off contamination in the back of a truck. What they were proposing as a reporting limit or action limit just wasn’t realistic [reachable] at all. That’s when people who propose these things start losing credibility because it means that they have not done enough investigating of what the PCB contents are in ambient air and what the risk levels are. Instead of hundreds of nanograms per cubic meter, they should be talking about tens of picograms [of PCBs] per cubic meter of air. It’s milligram-microgram-nanogram-picogram and each of those is 1,000 times lower than the one above it. So, it’s a lot, it’s a big difference.

The Berkshire Edge: What questions should the residents along the waterway or the proposed transportation route ask?

Hermanson: The way PCBs are reported. There are 209 different PCB congeners, a type, different levels of chlorine. With the data they have here, you don’t know which of those PCBs are the ones that make up what is being reported as Aroclors, the product Monsanto manufactured [that is in the Housatonic River]. Everybody who is potentially affected by the PCB situation, not just in Lee but in Pittsfield and elsewhere, should be concerned about this because there are certain PCB congeners that are a lot more toxic than others [carcinogens]. With the data you’re getting now, you have no idea if these carcinogenic congeners are being found in any of the samples that are being analyzed for PCBs and are being reported as Aroclors. We don’t know how much of any of these specific congeners are in [the Housatonic River]. We don’t know. 

It’s my job, now that I’ve gotten to this point in my career, to get this information out in a way that people can quickly understand it because it’s too easy to drown in the information that’s available. 

The Berkshire Edge: The EPA has claimed that after the cleanup, people will be able to swim, to recreate, in the Housatonic River. What are your thoughts?

Hermanson: It would take a lot of sampling from the river and the water and its sediments to convince me that it would be safe to go swimming in it. I would like the data. Show me the data. 

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